The Sugar Daddy Syndrome 

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Is intergenerational sex destroying a generation? Asks Solomon Elusoji 

Last September, a 40-year-old man from Gawa Village in Kastina, was arraigned before a Senior Magistrate Court for allegedly impregnating his neighbour’s 15-year-old daughter.

Idris is not a lone ranger. Virtually every day, the Nigerian media is awash with sordid tales of older men seeking warmth between the thighs of younger women, sometimes through rape.

However, there is also a flip side: younger women seeking the attention of older men, who mostly tend to be economically buoyant than their younger counterparts. “They have what I want, and I have what they need, so the relationship is a very rational one,” a 23-year-old fresh female graduate of Law, who craved anonymity, told this reporter.

But the macroeconomics is not that straight forward, according to one woman who is on a campaign to end inter-generational sex – the kind of intercourse that involves young women and older men – which she credits as a major avenue for HIV transmission on the African continent.

Sandra Omo is an ex-beauty queen and actress with lush ebony skin and a voice poised with conviction. Now, away from the runway and camera lights, she is in charge of a non-profit, Safe Love International (SLI).

According to SLI’s mission statement on its website, it was set up to “educate, empower and inspire youths” and “pays special attention to the girl child” because she is the one who is most “disadvantaged” in most societies and cultures across the world.

“We began to find out that the rate of HIV infection among young girls between the ages of 15 to 19 and 20 to 24 is so high,” she told this reporter one sunny afternoon in Lagos, last September.

This was a piece of statistics, she said, that did not just reflect the Nigerian situation, but all of sub-Saharan Africa. “In some parts of Africa, it was as high as 22 per cent,” she explained, “while for boys in that same age bracket it was four per cent.”

 What the statistics suggest

The national median age at sexual debut for adolescent girls and boys in Nigeria is between 15 and 16 years of age, a World Bank report published in 2016 said. However, while adolescent’s knowledge of contraception has increased over the years, access to health services remains limited due to factors such as fear of stigma, embarrassment, and poor access to the right education.

These kinds of conditions favour the spread of HIV and young women have been the major victims.It is estimated that 2.6 million people in Nigeria are infected with HIV and a large knowledge-behaviour gap still exists, especially among adolescents. But the catch is that the virus is more prevalent among young women than their male counterparts. A 2013 UNAIDS report noted that HIV prevalence among women 15 – 24 years old is estimated at 1.3 per cent compared to 0.7  per cent for men of similar age. Of concern is a large knowledge-behaviour gap regarding condom use for HIV prevention. While about 50 per cent of young women are aware that using a condom in every intercourse prevents HIV, only seven per cent of them report having used a condom at their last intercourse.

There are a variety of reasons why girls are disadvantaged. While secondary school enrolment was pegged at 54 per cent at the beginning of this decade, evidence indicates that 45 per cent of girls drop out before they graduate, compared to 31 per cent of boys, a UNICEF study revealed. This is associated with multiple factors, including poverty, absence of support systems, poor opportunities, and early marriage, especially for girls. Under the Child Rights Act of 2003, the legal age for marriage in Nigeria is 18 years. However, under parallel systems – customary and Islamic – that also operate in the country, marriage can take place at earlier ages.

There is also a regional angle to the syndrome, since poverty is a huge contributor. Poverty estimates show that only 16 per cent of the population in the South-west occupy the poverty zone, compared to 50 per cent in the North-east. A World Bank study in 2014 also revealed that while poverty has been declining in the Southern areas and North-central, it has in fact increased in the North-east and remains stagnant in the North-west.

 Stopping the Sugar Daddies

Omo, who has interfaced extensively with the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) and UNICEF, is convinced that young women do not contact HIV from their male peers but from older men, the Sugar Daddies, who take advantage of their youth.

Sugar Daddies are not necessarily people with flashy cars who drive into university campuses to tempt schoolgirls, “for the little girl in the village, it might be the guy who has a kiosk and is giving her biscuits,” Omo said.

Now, Omo, partnering with D-Prize and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), is attempting to combat the scourge through a programme that educates students about the menace of Sugar Daddies. “Our programme – ‘No Sugar Daddy, Bright Future’ – is an expose that takes the realities of HIV in the country to girls and boys in secondary school,” Omo said.

The programme, which was launched in Nigeria this year, has been run in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Cameroon, countries also beleaguered with the Sugar Daddy Syndrome, and has recorded remarkable success. J-PAL, which is domiciled at the MIT Department of Economics, in a policy paper published in February 2007, noted that warning girls to avoid Sugar Daddies was probably the cheapest and most effective way of reducing HIV prevalence.

“For just 80 cents per student, students can be warned about the high prevalence rates of older men, and the evidence shows they will respond by dramatically reducing the number of teenage childbirths with older men,” the paper said. “One such childbirth — with all the dangers that such behavior involves—can be prevented for just US$91.”

Omo is confident the programme will also succeed in Nigeria. She told this reporter in September: “Abuja is the pilot city. We are in the phase one of the project. We just obtained an approval from the Secondary Education Board in Abuja to reach every government school, that is over 64,000 students. We are in the implementation month. We go to schools, teach them and show them HIV statistics in the country by age, and then we explain how it is possible, through statistics, that HIV is trickling down from older men to young girls.

“After Abuja, we want to go to Port-Harcourt because it is the city with the highest rate of HIV infection in the country. Abuja is number five. Lagos is far down the line because of the education, the awareness there. Our goal is to be able to reach one million students within two years.”

 For the passion

Sandra Omo is not a woman with an angry disposition, but when she gets on about female empowerment, her face lights up like lightening in the middle of a storm. “I was raised in a family of strong women,” she said. Growing up in Benin-city with her grandmother – Madam Esther Osaigbovo – who rose from being sold into sexual slavery into one of the most influential people in Edo State, inspired her to empower disadvantaged girls. “You could never tell she had such a dark background,” Omo said, speaking of her grandmother. “Despite not going to school, she was able to speak about six different languages by the time she passed on. She is my biggest trigger.”

Omo’s second biggest trigger is Vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a medical condition that causes continuous, involuntary discharge of urine from the vagina. It is common among underage girls who get pregnant since their usual prolonged labour presses the unborn child tightly against the pelvis, cutting off blood flow to the vesicovaginal wall. When she was a teenager, Omo saw a movie about VVF and it marked her conscience. “A lot of young girls are suffering through this,” she said.

After the end of her secondary education in Benin-city, Omo moved to London to study International Relations at Schiller International University. “I wanted to be a diplomat.” But by the time she finished her degree, the modelling world had her in its fluffy embrace. For five years, she travelled round the world posing for the cameras. She was the first black girl to win the prestigious face of Brighton modelling competition in the UK. In 2008, she became the first Nigerian in Diaspora to return home and win the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN) crown. In 2010, she was named Nigeria’s most outstanding model by the Nigerian Models Achievers Award. In 2010, she added acting to her portfolio and was featured in the highly acclaimed PBS America TV series, ‘Secrets of the Dead: Slave Ship Mutiny’. The film was nominated for an Oscar.

In 2012, she decided to take a break from modelling and acting to study for her Masters. “I did not want to end up marrying an old man just to pay my bills,” she joked. Within two years, she acquired a Masters Degree in International Business Management at the University of Economics, Prague and an MBA from the Université Jean Moulin in France. Then she returned to her two old loves before landing a role as an Online Marketing Channel Manager at Rocket Internet AG in Paris.

But, she still felt there was something missing. “I kept telling myself, with all the education I had garnered, why was I not running an organisation that would make an impact on the issues I am passionate about?”

In 2015, she quit her job and enrolled for a diploma course on Social Entrepreneurship at the Copenhagen Business School. After the course, she moved back to Nigeria and started SLI. “A lot of people were frustrated that I had decided to go into nonprofit work,” she said. But she was unperturbed. “I am very passionate about young girls, but I had to be tough” to shield herself from the troubling aspersions.

Around the same time she started SLI, she came across the US-based D-Prize’s Sugar Daddy Awareness Campaign and decided to apply. In 2016, SLI was among the winners. “In its pilot, Safe Love International will Scale the Sugar Daddy Awareness Class to over 15,000 youths in Nigeria,” the D-Prize’s grant memo said.

The Jericho ahead

The big challenge for Omo has been the cultural response. “The problem is meeting people who don’t care about these things,” she said. “How can you blame a 13-year-old girl for seducing a grown up man?”

Violating the innocence of young girls in Nigeria is a worrisome trend and it is worse in the country’s Northern region where one in every three girls will become pregnant before they finish secondary school, according to the National Population Commission.

As at 2013, the National HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health Survey showed that 73 per cent of girls aged 13 to 19 in North-east Nigeria were married. There is no evidence that there has been a positive change in these statistics and Omo is worried that intergenerational sex might be destroying a generation.

“The number one thing you can do to change anything is to not be quiet about it,” she said. “In Nigeria, a lot of people live in denial. They think HIV is something that is so far or something that will never happen to them. They don’t understand that it is so close, if you take statistics into consideration. So we will go on to teach young girls how to recognise when an older man is preying on you for sex and what to do about it.”